Throughout summer and autumn, hikers rule the Swiss hilltops. Nicola Brady gets her boots on in Graubünden.
I'm sitting in a sauna, and it's taking every ounce of restraint I have to keep looking straight ahead. My gaze is fixed upon a small knot of wood in the wall. Right now, it is imperative that it stays there.
What's going on?
Well, I've just spent the day hiking strenuous trails in the Swiss Alps, fantasising frequently about the sauna in which I now sit. What I didn't expect were the five men in here with me, who are all very much naked. Switzerland's prolific thermal suites are mostly unisex, it turns out, and nudity is compulsory. My instincts tell me that giggling is frowned upon also... hence my focus on that knot of wood.
I'm in the Swiss region of Graubünden for the tail end of summer, when hikers rule the hilltops. The mountains, shrouded in snow for much of the winter, come to life in the spring, carpeted with verdant, soft grass in the richest of greens. When you walk, the tinkling of bells rings through the hills as goats trot nearby. Lakes are the particular shade of powder blue that you can only get from glacial water; their pastel hues are hypnotic.
Switzerland's summer landscape...
My first day begins, as all good days should, with a glass of chilled Prosecco in the hillside town of Falera. The plan is to embark on an eight-hour Culinary Trail in Flims. Between spurts of hiking, generally an hour or two in length, we make pit-stops at charming restaurants hidden throughout the mountains.
Our first stop is Tegia Larnags (larnags.ch), where we tuck into melon and local ham, as staff heave hay bales in preparation for a party later in the evening. We stop at Restaurant Runcahohe (runcahoehe.ch) for pizokels, pillowy little dumplings not unlike gnocchi, swaddled in a buttery spinach sauce.
There are several families enjoying lunch, with children flinging themselves along a zipline and gallivanting on a climbing frame. A local woman tells me that when she was a child, her family would make the two-hour hike to come here for lunch, with the promise of the playground and pizokels at the end.
"We would never drive - I don't think it occurred to my parents. Weekends were all about hiking, for everyone around here," she says.
It still seems that way today. Locals take to the hills whenever they can, overtaking wheezing tourists with ease. Mountain roads turn to gravel tracks, grassy knolls and rickety bridges over ravines. Every so often, a wooden pipe pokes out from a mountain stream, sending a spurt of chilled water into the grateful hands, mouths and bottles of hikers. It is the purest water I have ever tasted, manna for those conquering Switzerland's summer mountains.
Pizokels... gnocchi-like dumplings
As we progress on to the tricky final stretch of our eight-hour hike, the promise of a huge meal weighing heavily in my mind, we reach a series of climbs that nearly have me pilfering the walking stick from a passer-by. Our final restaurant, Startgels (grandislaax.ch), appears up a dizzyingly steep climb.
I trudge on, just as the rain starts to fall. Almost instantly, the drizzle becomes an intense shower, slamming down on us as we battle up what would be a black run in the ski season. When we reach our destination, we take shelter on the deck, peeling off layers of wet clothing. Steam pours from our heads as the rain continues to batter down. A bolt of lightning strikes not a few feet from where I sit, where we stood only moments before.
As we tuck into thick chops of fire-charred lamb, roasted vegetables and polenta, the sun begins to peek out again, and the mountains emerge from the swathes of rain. The sound of hammering showers is replaced by serene silence. It's a quick-fire change in conditions that, even for one used to the vagaries of Irish weather, is fairly staggering.
Not all of the mountains here in Graubünden are as tranquil. St Moritz is a glitzy showgirl of a town, the streets lined with designer stores frequented by stylish skiers in the winter. The summer crowd is a little more low-key. Visitors duck into cafes for a slice of nusstorte, a rich walnut cake (below), before taking strolls around the piercingly blue lake.
Away from the glamour, there are plenty of spots that are friendly, welcoming and casual, however. Located behind the majestic Kempinski hotel, for example, La Baracca is the kind of joint that would be rammed in the winter, with people seeking the perfect night of après ski.
Nusstorte, a rich walnut cake
In the summer, this wooden chalet is filled with groups of friends, tucking into huge communal platters before tables are shifted to one side for dancing. You could be sat next to a stranger on the long table in the centre of the room, and then end up digging a spoon into his dessert once the sun has gone down.
As dusk falls, the groups mingle into one. Dangerously strong drinks appear and impromptu conga lines begin. Sashaying around the room in a tight cluster feels almost as intimate as sharing a sauna (but thankfully, we all get to keep our clothes on). It's hard not to get sucked into the spirit of things, in a place where good-hearted joie de vie seems to grow on the thickets of pine trees.
If this is what a life of hiking gets you, then my boots are never coming off.
A decent pair of hiking boots is obviously a must, but be sure to wear them in properly before you hit the hills. Pack lightweight layers made from hard-working fabrics like Merino wool, too - the slopes in Switzerland can get chilly even when the sun shines.
The Signinahotel (signinahotel.com) is in the centre of Flims, close to all of the restaurants and a bus stop. Rates start at 170CHF/€158. In St Moritz, the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains (kempinski.com/stmoritz) is the height of luxury, with plush rooms, an incredible spa and fantastic food. Rates start at 520CHF/€484.
A Thrilling Ride
While public transport is well organised, some journeys provide more of a thrill than others. The Bernina Express (rhb.ch; 49CHF/€45) runs from Chur to St Moritz, weaving through mountains and crossing staggeringly high viaducts and bridges over the course of a two-hour journey.
Saunas are everywhere in Graubünden. Most hotels come equipped with a thermal suite, and you'll be grateful for it at the end of a long day's hiking. Just remember: no swimsuits are allowed (though you can cover yourself with a towel). Some have gender specific areas, but unisex is the general rule.
Whether you're on a culinary hike or not, there are a number of foodstuffs you'll want to seek out. As well as the pizokels (above), you'll find polenta on most menus, which is hardy hiking fuel. In St Moritz, pop into Hatecke (hatecke.ch) for incredible cured Alpine meats, then find a slice of nusstorte.
Swiss (swiss.com) flies from Dublin to Zurich from around €140 return. It's a good idea to get a Swisspass (swiss-pass.ch), which entitles you to unlimited travel on trains and buses, as well as entry into 400 museums. Passes start at €171 for three days.
For more info, see en.graubuenden.ch or myswitzerland.com.